An archaeologist well known for ancient discoveries mainly in Europe is suspected of having faked some of his most important finds, possibly even running a forger’s workshop, it has been revealed.
James Mellaart, who died in 2012, was most famous for discovering Çatalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old settlement in Turkey, in 1961. This settlement, one of the world’s oldest known towns, is not under dispute. Inhabited for around 2,000 years, it has been a goldmine for archaeologists studying the effects of the discovery of agriculture and the domestication of animals on humans.
What made it truly special though was the discovery of a rich variety of Stone Age art, from figurines to murals on the walls depicting aurochs, lions, headless women, and men with erections, which has been translated as one of the earliest examples of religion.
One mural depicting a volcano erupting was even thought to be the world’s oldest landscape painting.
But the British archaeologist has been accused of forging some of his finds.
Mellart, who died at the age of 86, insisted that his peers published his unreleased work after his death, allowing them access to his research. He had identified particular texts as important and to be published immediately, so his estate forwarded these to the Luwian Studies Foundation. Last month they were given access to his London home to check a few things, see his original notes etc. And this is where it gets murky.
Led by geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger, president of the Luwian Studies Foundation, what they found has left them horrified and “betrayed”.
Mellaart had claimed to have discovered ancient texts telling the tale of a Trojan hero called Muksus written in the Luwian language, something he claimed he didn’t understand, hence asking for Zangger’s help. But Zangger found in his apartment notes that showed Mellaart could read and write Luwian rather well, as well as “drafts” of the Muksus story.
Zangger also found pieces of rocks engraved with what looked like initial sketches of artwork he recognized as the kind Mellaart claimed to have found at Çatalhöyük. Mellaart went on to publish drawings of the murals he found, without photos or the originals as he claimed they crumbled to dust after he found them.
As you can imagine, this has now cast doubt on many of Mellaart’s findings over the years, with Zangger suggesting he ran a “forger’s workshop" from his home. However, there is no evidence that Mellart fabricated artifacts, according to the Luwian Studies Foundation. “His creative work was limited to drawings and texts,” it said in a statement.
Unsurprisingly, it has left his colleagues and peers feeling angry and not sure what to trust as well as possibly embarrassed about any work they may have published based on his “discoveries”.
"I feel abused," Zangger told Live Science, claiming "he had no scruples when it came to harming other people's careers."